Witnessing a Legend
I had a long time to think of this because of its inevitability, but it did not make the writing easier.
There is only one start to a legend. I was there to record the start of women’s basketball and, more, in at the start of the Pat Head legend.
We came together in the1970s of Upper East Tennessee. I came to that job having just covered Bob Knight in my previous job. That is important because Trish was the female reflection of Knight, coaching style, teaching methods and incredible two-way lifetime loyalty if you survived the crucible. And I was not intimidated, which she liked.
There are so many examples. One hot summer workout I strolled into the practice session toward the end. Here was a Final Four caliber team running suicides. They were past dry heaves. The only way the session ended was for someone to make a free throw.
The Coach had tried them all, the best and the fluke shooters, and no one could hit. As one of the adults in the room, she came to me in true panic. What to do. The tradition had to be maintained, the job completed.
I advised they had to play it out. They did of course and The Coach and I made happy eye contact. She maintained part of the legend.
Another time, I asked what would she do if one of her All-Americans simply stood up to her, even in a private practice session. The Coach looked truly alarmed and said I dare not suggest it because she had no answer. These examples merely showed she was human which was often overlooked once she became a national brand and a living legend.
I would get phone calls at all hours if she had a question. In those days, not every score even made the national news wire. She could not very well call one of the other coaches. So it was up to me, a reporter calling a reporter. And I did it.
We had become friends in those days when she drive one van and ace assistant Nancy Darsch the other to nearly empty gyms across the South. I’d drive my own car but we’d share food stops. I was usually working on my own time, so I had an unlimited schedule.
Once, coming back from a terrible loss to Clemson, where the opposing coach was no more than a glorified high school gym coach, the parade did not stop until the home campus.
The Coach ordered the well-worn uniforms be put back on because it was practice time at 1 a.m. Had I not been included in the trip, I would not have had that story.
I found out decades later she would use my stories as recruiting tools in the pre-internet era. Recruits would get copies. No other newspaper covered women’s basketball like we did, she and I.
So The Coach would send them promises of look what kind of coverage you’d get.
As the famous poet said, she used me and I used her and neither of us cared. We had become friends. She was amazed when she realized I really had no rooting interest. Truly amazed. My job started when the game ended. Her job ended then.
She introduced me to her dad, an amazingly stoic hill folk. She did not warn me. But she laughed when I came away somewhat confused.
She sorta liked the idea we could be friends. I eventually was doing some of the radiocasts, second chair, because my best friend in the world was doing the first chair for free and occasionally needed to catch his breath.
One of her All-Americans, against the orders of the Coach, played intramural softball, a left-handed third baseman She severely tweaked an ankle. The players asked me to deliver the news, because she could not take it out on me I did and she more or less put the information in her pocket, saving it for a time when she needed to get the player’s attention, always thinking ahead.
We had fun because of our association with The Coach. She took us along for the ride of her life and we were grateful for it. Final Fours, coast-to-coast small gyms to mammoth arenas. Once when at a nondescript four-team tournament in Detroit she was so happy I was there she introduced me as “my reporter.” Then she realized how it sounded and apologized. Did not faze me. She was in my writing DNA by then.
She invited me on a recruiting trip. As we let the restaurant she said don’t look back but a lot of people were staring. Those that knew her, she said, didn’t know me and she almost grabbed my hand as if we were on a date to give them something to talk about.
That was her sense of humor.
I could keep her off-balance, though. We were in Maryland and she had heard of this wonderful seafood joint. We all ate. And here was Lefty Driesell, another legendary coach by us, having dinner with his mom.
The Coach wanted to meet him. I knew it. So I asked and we walked over to his table. I said excuse me, Lefty, but this here is Pat Head and she wanted to meet you. His eyes lit up and he certainly knew who she was. I walked back to my table as they talked.
Later, her eyes twinkling, she said I didn’t know Lefty, did I. But I knew my friend knew I knew she wanted to meet him. She loved it.
She once offered to let me in the locker room because other papers would send women reporters in as if the players would give them anything and not save it for me. I told her there were just some things about her girls I did not want to know. Still she talked me in once just to end that kind of discrimination. Her mind never stopped.
I became the first reporter to cover the women’s national championship and the next night, cover the men’s. She was happier for me than was I.
The game grew, of course. She and Knight swept the Olympics in Los Angeles. The women had arrived with that first Gold. The first NCAA women’s Final Four had 37 writers. It is now sold out with hundreds of writers and broadcasters. I attended a Regional Final with 800 total attendance. Those games now draw thousands across America.
She and her original athletic director, Gloria Ray, invented the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame because they had the guts to do it. The Coach offered to put me in because legends can do things like that. As I am old school, I declined. I am still but a writer. I suggested the first journalist needed to be the co ordinator of the national poll, which he single handedly kept alive. Then again, he and I are the only ones of the original 37 from the first NCAA tournament still writing. She is in my life hall of fame and she made sure I knew I was in hers and that is more important.
The growth of the women’s game meant no reporters could ever get that close to a coach again. I was in the right place at the right time. I am blessed. We remained friends.
Pat Head Summitt did not create women’s college basketball. But she elevated it, defined it. She originated the idea of a national coach for the international competitions and then declined the honor of being that person.
She made sure male coaches would get a shot at those spots by including them in.
She did not create the Southeastern Conference, the best of all in its sport. But she and Gloria hosted the first two conference championships a a monetary loss once the NCAA welcomed the women’s game. She has won more than any other conference team, even though the record number of SEC games coached has been surpassed. It is fitting no other SEC team has won a national title and yet she won eight. Other league teams have made the Final Four and now any one of them is free to win it all.
You could have your back to the door of a big room and yet you would know someone arrived as soon as she slipped in. She had it. There is not a coach in America who has not been influenced by her. There are no others that can say that.
She became a living legend and her own brand in the process, retiring with the most wins and the most national titles. Those records will be surpassed because now the game is important and it is important because of The Coach.
She has launched 168 of her “young ladies” into the world. Every one of them who completed the program graduated, another link with Knight. The players have families, so the expanding circle of her direct impact continues.
She married and had a son and she lived long enough to see him rise to a Division 1 coach. He is out of it now.
The Coach lived long enough to see herself honored with statues on her campus. A Foundation exists in her name. Various national awards are named in her honor. I hope the SEC names its tournament championship trphy after her. She is the defining women’s coach of the originating era. There is only one first and she is that.
Then came early onset Alzheimer’s. We are relatively the same age so that is scary to me.
I twice was a primary witness to two other women in my life who had Alzheimer’s, a witness to the end.
The Coach followed the path A year of being able to fool everyone, knowing something is happening as the darkness closes in.
Then a year of being escorted, happy to see folks who were happy to see you but not knowing any of them.
Then the months of just existing, Then hospice.
The Coach had left us by then. Her body lived on.
When she ascended, it rained quite a lot that day across the Great American Prairie. I think the angels were crying. Driving home that twilight, the sun set as a big orange ball, The wisps of color among the clouds were orange as well, an endless stretch. Even fools such as I took the meaning. She was now influencing the heavens.
This special friend of mine completed her death endgame. I see in the next place now, coaching games and arguing with the angel referees.
As one of her original friends, I started writing down thoughts for the expected tribute.
One of those ideas is not original.
A lot of people will die today. We all will reach that day.
In her particular last group, many will die in a convalescent home, of Alzheimer’s, and many will be more alone and less-remembered.
The human experiment teaches us so much. We mourn more for the famous yet everyone is someone’s child.
The lesson for those of us still on the ride is to help those we can who share the air with us. My friend is one of those who ultimately will be honored for the lives she touched and the pace she set.
She reminds me of the line: I have dined with kings and queens and I have dined on pork and beans.
A Tennessee country girl rose to an international impact-maker. She met Presidents and world rulers. She was laid to rest back in Henrietta, next to her dad, where it all started
The remembrance for me is it is not how she died but how she lived.